By Joe Scalzo
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, in front of a small crowd, against a team that had won five straight in the series, the Youngstown State men’s basketball team morphed from heartwarming upstarts to conference bullies.
Green Bay came to Beeghly Center with an 0-10 road record and left without its lunch money as the Penguins put together possibly their most complete performance since joining the Horizon League, crushing the Phoenix 75-45.
Afterward, YSU coach Jerry Slocum admitted, “I didn’t see this coming,” although you could see it early in the first half. Green Bay took a 2-0 lead in the first minute, then needed 61/2 more to score again. By then, YSU was up 12 points and Penguin guards Blake Allen and Kendrick Perry were causing so much havoc, YSU’s 2-3 zone looked more like a 3-3.
“We knew we had to create our own energy,” said Perry, who finished with 15 points, six assists and two steals. “It’s a Sunday afternoon and we didn’t anticipate a lot of our fans being there, especially after the big game against Milwaukee [on Friday], so we knew we had to jump on them early and not let up.”
It was YSU’s first 30-point win in the Horizon League. It marked the first time YSU has posted two 20-point conference wins in one season. It’s the first time YSU has been in contention for a league title since it was in the Mid-Continent Conference a decade ago.
In short, it’s been a season full of firsts, and here’s the biggest: midway through the Horizon League season, the Penguins (11-8, 6-3) have a legitimate shot of finishing first.
“I’m not going to lie — I’m happy about it,” said Slocum, whose team is one game back of Valparaiso and Cleveland State in the league standings. “It’s been a grind, the guys have worked extremely hard and I’m proud of them and proud of the position we’re in.”
Allen scored 16 points and dished out five assists, Ashen Ward and DuShawn Brooks each scored 12 points and the Penguins got a season-best 16 points off their bench and not all of them were in mop-up time.
The game’s key stretch came in the first three minutes of the second half. After thoroughly outplaying the Phoenix (7-12, 3-6) in the first half, YSU stretched its 13-point lead to 19 to start the second half and Green Bay never got closer than 16 the rest of the way.
“I told our guys, the maturation of this team has got to be that you put the hammer down when you get the chance,” said Slocum. “That’s part of the growth for these guys, to be able to smell that and finish it rather than playing around with it.”
After playing 10 of its first 13 games on the road — “I had more meals with the bus driver than my wife,” Slocum said — YSU has emerged as a stronger, more battle-tested team and now has almost a week to prepare for Saturday’s home showdown with Cleveland State, which will come in plenty motivated after losing to the Penguins on New Year’s Eve.
“You can’t let me enjoy [this] one night?” Slocum joked. “We’ve got a big home game against a really special team and that is going to be a war.”